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Bitmap Photo-Editing and Vector Drawing Apps 2001

Tom Arah adjudicates as the main photo-editing and drawing applications go head-to-head.

The most common request I receive from readers is "which application would you recommend." It's been around three years since I last did a round-up of graphics applications so I hope it will be useful to take another snapshot to see how things stand, how they've changed and how they might change in future.

Bitmap Editors

There's a lot of ground to cover so here are all the main contenders, split into the two traditional fields of bitmap-based photo-editing and vector-based drawing, and strictly in alphabetical order:

COREL PAINTER 6: A slightly odd place to start as Painter is the one bitmap editor that doesn't major on photo-editing but instead concentrates on producing real art. Its development history hasn't been easy, beginning with Fractal Design then Metacreations and now Corel, but the program occupies a unique position so its users don't have much choice but to stick with it. Pros: Wide range of natural media brushes and some spectacular artistic effects such as its interactive impasto and mosaic filters. Cons: Version 6 was a nightmare for bugs and the program's interface is far too technical for the intended market. Overall: Interfaces and reliability aren't really Corel's strong suit so users are awaiting the first real Corel release with some trepidation.

PAINT SHOP PRO 7: The application that brought photo-editing to the masses with its try-before-you-buy (or-not) shareware approach. Pros: PSP tends to lag one or two releases behind its idol, Photoshop, but that means it's now offering some serious power. With version 6's vector layers it even showed Photoshop the way forward. Cons: PSP's Web features are under-powered and the program's shareware roots are still too evident in its over-technical and ugly interface. Overall: PSP is a Photoshop wannabe but features such as its image browser and screen capture make it well suited for office users.

PHOTOIMPACT 6: Coming from left-field (Taiwan) PhotoImpact broke the photo-editing mould. Pros: A totally fresh approach based on the idea that photo-editing should be visual and fun. The bundled Album applications caters for PC Photographers while version 6's Component Designer and impressive HTML support let you create eye-catching Web pages as well as images. Cons: The lack of CMYK support and an object rather than layer-based approach to composition rule PhotoImpact out for professionals. Overall: Huge creativity for those happy to work outside the mainstream.

PhotoImpact takes a creative approach to photo-editing and Web page authoring.

PHOTO-PAINT 10: Developed primarily as part of the Corel Draw suite but also available separately. Pros: With its modern interface and full range of photo-editing power Photo-Paint used to be a real challenger to Photoshop and some features, such as its movie frame editing and scriptability, still lead the way. Cons: Photo-Paint was offering all this three years ago and has hardly changed since with its Web features looking particularly dated. Overall: Still a good all-rounder but Photo-Paint has slipped badly.

PHOTOSHOP 6: Since its release in 1990 Photoshop has become almost synonymous with photo-editing. Pros: Its speed, CMYK support and non-destructive layer-based composition made Photoshop the standard for print-oriented professionals. Now its image optimization, vector control and HTML output are attempting to do the same for the Web. Cons: A bitmap environment still isn't ideal for Web imaging and the bundled ImageReady is particularly awkward. More generally Photoshop's professional power is demanding - both of effort and money. Overall: For those looking for maximum power irrespective of price, Photoshop is the one - and with version 6 it's lead has grown even wider.

Photoshop dominates the world of professional photo editing.

PHOTOSHOP ELEMENTS: Not everyone can justify Photoshop's expense so the appeal of a cut-down budget version is obvious. Pros: Adobe certainly hasn't been mean when it comes to power and, apart from professional features, such as CMYK handling and scriptability, it's all here along with some dedicated PC Photography functionality such as an image browser and stitching capabilities. Cons: Usability isn't great and the PC Photography features are generally weak. Overall: Ideal for users who wished they could justify buying the real thing, but not necessarily ideal for occasional users.

PHOTOSUITE IV PLATINUM EDITION: One of the more recent contenders, PhotoSuite is aimed firmly at the consumer market and especially digital camera users. Pros: Modern easy-to-use browser-based interface and some impressive PC Photography features including album-based image management and Web page output. The image stitching capability alone is worth the price of the program. Cons: PhotoSuite's editing power and its image optimization are comparatively limited and its browser-based architecture means the application isn't the speediest. Overall: Excellent range of power for the price and a good focus on its target market's needs.

 

Taking an overview of the field as a whole it's clear that each of the bitmap applications apart from Photo-Paint have changed significantly over the last three years. The most obvious trend is the increasing importance of the Web. Three years ago Web support meant little more than the ability to save to JPEG and GIF format. Now the ability to optimize and fine-tune all aspects of an image to trade-off quality against file size is crucial. More than this, applications like Photoshop and PhotoImpact are recognizing the need not just to produce the bitmaps but also the HTML and Javascript code necessary to bring them together as image tables, rollovers and even entire Web pages.

The second noticeable trend is partly connected with the first - the increasing importance of vector-based shape and text handling. Even the cut-down Photoshop Elements and Paint Shop Pro now offer impressive drawing-style control so that PhotoSuite is the only application to maintain a bitmap-only approach (and even here text is re-editable). The speed, editability, precision, scalability and restyling capabilities that vectors offer all help to add to creative options but it's for Web work, most obviously in the production of buttons and banners, that they really come into their own.

It's clear then that for the future these two trends of increasing Web and vector functionality are set to develop further. Useful though they are though, I don't feel that they will ever become decisive. When you are choosing a bitmap editor the one determining factor (apart from Painter's special art-based pleading) is how they handle photographic work. That's why, despite the developments of the last three years, the overall picture has remained comparatively static.

It also explains why the question "which is the best photo editor" is so easy to answer - no contender has risen to challenge Photoshop or ever really looked like it was going to. The reason is clear: bitmap editing is a fundamentally simple application involving manipulating the pixel values of the bitmap grid. Colour correction, layered photomontages, RGB to CMYK conversion, special effect filtering and Web image optimization all boil down to the same thing - intelligently and quickly juggling those pixel values. And Photoshop's strongest engine means it is the strongest editor.

Photoshop is undoubtedly the best photo-editing application then - but that doesn't mean that it's necessarily the best for you. While at the high-end there's little room for competition with Photoshop - and the likes of Picture Publisher, xRes and now Photo-Paint seem to be paying the price for trying - it's important to remember that the vast majority of users aren't professionals and lower down the scale there's plenty of choice. Photoshop Elements caters for those who don't have the budget to buy the real thing; Paint Shop Pro offers Photoshop-style power with a more office-based bias; PhotoImpact offers a very different creative and visual approach to both print and Web imaging; and PhotoSuite caters well to the specialist demands of the new breed of digital camera owner.

Vector Editors

In terms of the vector-based drawing packages the main contenders are:

CANVAS 8: Often overlooked in the past, Deneba has concentrated on producing an all-round integrated graphics application and is now reaping the benefits. Pros: Canvas is a total graphics solution that offers basic DTP, business presentation, Web design and even animation on top of its core drawing power. What really makes the program different though is its blurring of the distinction between vectors and pixels through its pixel-level editing and non-destructive SpriteLayers and SpriteEffects (terrible name but great creative power). Cons: Canvas can't hope to be the best across the board at everything it offers. Overall: But then that's not really the intention - the real idea is to give the user the maximum creative power immediately to hand.

Canvas offers non-destructive bitmap effects.

COREL DRAW 10: Corel Draw was the first Windows drawing program and it put its head-start to very good use. Pros: Huge range of power from fractal fills and transparency through to scriptability and now Web vectors. And the bundled Photo-Paint provides capable photo-editing to users without their own bitmap solution. Cons: Corel's kitchen-sink philosophy has led to bloating and a reputation for unreliability that the company is still trying to shake off. Recent features such as the Flash SWF authoring RAVE module still look bolted-on and end up highlighting rather than overcoming Corel's general Web weakness. Overall: Still powerful all-rounder, but now following where it used to lead.

EXPRESSION 2: The vector equivalent of the natural media Painter, Expression's development history is even more unfortunate though thankfully the program has now been salvaged from the break-up of Metacreations by its original developers, Creature House. Pros: Artistic brush technology that combines the advantages of pixels and vectors along with surprisingly advanced bitmap control and even SWF output. Cons: A niche product rather than a total solution. Overall: Back with a bang after five years (!) and at a bargain price - though only of interest to those with artistic leanings.

FREEHAND 10: At one time FreeHand was Macromedia's flagship application but that was before the advent of the Web. Pros: Freehand's long history means it's not short of general graphic design power, while its SWF authoring capabilities and tight tie-in with Flash give it a unique edge. Cons: Disappointing lack of bitmap capabilities and recent features, such as its contour gradients and brushes, look under-powered compared to contemporaries. Overall: FreeHand has found a new role as a cross-publishing print and Web solution - but with the emphasis firmly on Flash and the Web.

ILLUSTRATOR 9: The first drawing package, Illustrator's main strength has always been its tight tie-in with PostScript though three years ago that was more of a limitation than a benefit. Pros: Illustrator's PostScript and now PDF underpinning has always appealed to professional designers looking for absolute reliability when it comes to commercial print. Recently the Adobe developers have managed to overcome the inherent limitations of PostScript to offer features such as gradient meshes, brushes and transparency that boost creativity dramatically. Illustrator also now takes the Web seriously with style-based formatting, advanced GIF optimisation and even SWF output. Cons: Bizarrely Illustrator projects are still limited to a single page which makes producing multi-page publications unnecessarily complex. Overall: Now a worthy vector-based partner to the bitmap-based Photoshop. If there was a prize for most-improved application Illustrator would walk off with it.

Illustrator is the natural vector partner to Photoshop.

PHOTODRAW 2000: Microsoft tends to dominate any field it enters so the launch of its all-round graphics solution was a significant event. Pros: PhotoDraw's total integration of bitmap and vector is designed to offer the best of both worlds - creativity and editability. Cons: Sadly it doesn't. In particular trying to process photos with no real access to the pixels that make them up is exasperating as is the performance hit inherent in PhotoDraw's integrated approach. Overall: Dropped from the recent Office XP releases, Microsoft's commitment and PhotoDraw's future is in doubt.

XARA X: Back in 1995 Xara Studio pioneered the idea of combining the best of vector and bitmap approaches - and managed to do it in a working environment that was still faster than the vector-only competition. Unfortunately the result was an agreement with Corel which saw the program almost stifled. Now back with its original developers, Xara X is again creating waves. Pros: Hugely interactive and creative feature set, such as the new Bevel and Button tools, and an impressive Web focus that includes HTML and Flash output. Cons: The SWF output is currently only static and Xara's standalone nature means there are no tie-ins to associated bitmap editors or Web authors. Overall: The quickest route to impressive results for both print and Web - and at an excellent price.

Xara X offers streamlined Web and print-oriented creativity.

Again looking at the field of drawing as a whole, the first thing that strikes is the increasing importance of exactly the same factors as with photo-editing: the convergence of vector and bitmap approaches and the increasing significance of the Web.

In terms of the fusion of vector and bitmap processing there's a complete range of options. At one extreme there are Expression and PhotoDraw where vector control is simply a means to the final bitmapped output. In the middle are Xara X and Corel Draw which can produce true vector EPS output but also happily swap between vector and bitmap processing depending on which effect you apply. And at the other extreme is FreeHand's near vector-only approach which offers rasterisation but little reason why you should want to.

The most successful balance though is provided by Canvas and Illustrator which both offer excellent vector-only tools and output but supplement this with non-destructive bitmap filters so that creativity is maximized. Illustrator's PostScript background pulls more toward the vector side of the equation, while Canvas's pixel-level editing pulls more toward the bitmap, but both really do offer the best of both worlds. Most importantly (and highlighting PhotoDraw's fatal mistake) both programs leave the user to decide when to choose the benefits of vector-based control or pixel-based creativity.

One area where the benefits of vector/bitmap integration are highlighted is in the design of Web-oriented GIFs and JPEGs and all the packages apart from Expression offer this capability to one degree or another including the ability to output HTML. Surprisingly Illustrator and FreeHand bring up the rear here with their lack of rollover support. PhotoDraw and Corel Draw do offer rollovers but the level of optimization and control is so poor that you don't feel users are really expected to put the feature into serious practice. Ultimately it's only with Canvas 8 and Xara X, with their dedicated and well thought-through tools and advanced HTML/Javascript output (even XHTML from Canvas), that you really feel that generating Web bitmaps and Web pages is intended to be more than an occasional sideline.

Vector packages can be well suited for producing Web bitmaps, but of course they come into their own for producing Web vectors. Here PhotoDraw has to bow out, but all the other contenders now offer Flash support. Expression and Xara offer basic SWF output though Expression has the advantage of offering effect-based animations. Illustrator and the latest Canvas offer simple layer and page-based approaches to Flash animation while Corel RAVE offers a dedicated tween-based module. Not surprisingly though it is FreeHand 10 that really scores here with its inbuilt preview, ability to set up interactivity and tight tie-in with Flash.

More importantly, FreeHand's apparently limited vector-only approach to features such as its symbol-based brushes and gradient formatting, makes absolute sense when you understand the importance of being able to turn drawings into efficient Flash animations. Similarly Illustrator 9's reworking of its whole approach to formatting through the use of styles makes sense as Adobe prepares for the advent of restylable SVG Web graphics. It's clear then that photo-editing and drawing are undergoing the same two main pulls - vector/bitmap integration and Web imaging - but while for the photo-editors these were largely incidental, for the vector world they are absolutely fundamental.

This has crucial consequences when it comes to determining which is the best drawing package. While three years ago Corel Draw was almost as dominant as Photoshop, now there's no clear leader. PhotoDraw seems to have dropped out of the race, at least temporarily, but otherwise the field is completely open. Canvas has pushed forwards on all fronts to become a major player; the Corel Draw suite still offers the widest range of power even if it no longer sets the agenda; Expression caters well for its artistic niche market; FreeHand might have lost print-based creativity but it has gained an edge with its Flash authoring; Illustrator has recognized the importance of the Web while rejuvenating its print control; and finally Xara X offers an elegantly streamlined alternative to both page and screen-based creativity.

If I had to choose just one I'd be tempted to give Canvas the award for its breadth, depth and focus, but in a way the best overall isn't only conditional, it's also irrelevant. Ultimately what's important is which application is the best for you and here each program is a contender depending on what you want out of it. Ultimately overviews and in-depth reviews can help you make an informed choice, but the final decision over which is the best application is up to you.

Tom Arah

August 2001


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